Thursday, October 31, 2013

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Amazing - the change of one day in Autumn, seen my office window!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Meanwhile, in the FIrst Year Workshops...

I haven't been telling you much about the weekly meeting of seminar fellows (peer advisers to the first year class) I facilitate. That's not because it isn't a great group, or because we haven't been having fun. This is the part of running the First Year Program I most enjoy - a broader range of students than I would otherwise meet, caring and sharing about the whole incoming class as whole persons.

Anyway, this is the second week of two on themes of diversity, a word used in so many ways it's in danger of losing all critical egde - aren't we all "diverse" in our own fabulous ways? We've tried to give the discussions content by stipulating that the first week focus on questions of privilege and the second on intersectionality. Privilege is hard to talk about, but people sort of know what it is. (A good starting point in getting beyond the canard that "everyone is privileged in one way" is here.) Privilege needs to be discussed because it's something its beneficiaries are usually unaware of benefiting from, and because determining what you should do with/about your privilege is often situational. (Don't do this.)

Intersectionality, meanwhile, is a long word with a little known origin - the double disprivilege of black women - that's new to most, and difficult to mobilize. Generalized it can get flabbily generic: "we all have overlapping identities! nobody is just one thing!" Establishing solidarity across marginalizations is important, but at least as important is realizing that forms of oppression and dehumanization cluster in predictable ways and compound each other in profound ways - kind of like privilege. How to link all these problems? One student found the cute explanatory diagram above which got our discussion going, but it was another's clever read on it which really took us places. Bob is oppressed for being stripey and a triangle, but he's also blue - which might be a very good color to be. Privilege and intersectionality in the same picture! Complicated and real... You can take it from there.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Stranger and stranger

This past week's session of the New School History course worked especially nicely! Our period was the 40s and 50s, the main theme the school's place - as a place - in the city. The readings were Alfred Schütz's 1944 American Journal of Sociology essay "The Stranger"; the first four chapters of Anatole Broyard's Kafka Was The Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir (Vintage, 1997), a narrative of a vet's becoming a bohemian writer in the Village and The New School in 1946; and "Our Way of Life Makes us Miserable," a 1964 Saturday Evening Post essay by Erich Fromm. Each fascinating on its own, they also resonated with each other and with our class discussions in many delicious ways. Let me mention a half dozen of the most suggestive.

Broyard mentions taking classes from Fromm, whom he found pompous but also irresistibly magnetic. Fromm was one of the New School refugee scholars who added a touch of Weltschmerz to Broyard's generation's giddy exploration of the possibilities of postwar peace.
Fromm, we learn, tried to make his students aware of their own fear of freedom, something which made no sense to Broyard and his classmates, but they accepted everything he said ... because we liked the sound of it - no one knew then that we would turn out to be right in trying to escape from freedom (15-16).

Describing a class on Gestalt psychology (in which he claims to have heard a dead person sing), Broyard makes an interesting observation about the refugee scholars: It seemed to me that Germans were sometimes stunned into a kind of stupor by an ordinary insight, which they would then try to elevate into a philosophy or a system. Colliding with a modest fact in the midst of their abstraction, they just couldn't get over it. (17) This probably describes many a non-philosopher's response to philosophy! But it also resonates with Schütz' account of the cognitive experience of "strangers," who, new to an environment, don't share its denizens' almost thoughtless "thinking as usual." 502:
In fact "thinking as usual" tends to be incoherent and even contradictory as theory (500), but it's sufficient to the task of making a home in this world (so long as it doesn't change). Its recipes tell people how to respond to common types of situations as a matter of course - almost anonymously. The stranger, however, already reeling from the failure of his own culture's "recipes" to make sense of the new environment, sees the incoherence and contradictions in cultural patterns which he experiences not as a shelter but as a labyrinth, in which he has lost all sense of his bearings (507). In a spot-on phenomenology of what it is to be in a foreign culture, Schütz notes that the stranger can't distinguish individual from type: the observed actors within the approached group are not - as for their co-actors - of a certain presupposed anonymity, namely, mere performers of typical functions, but individuals. On the other hand, he is incined to take mere individual traits as typical ones. (506) So it's no wonder the stranger might stumble and even be vaulted into philosophy by what strikes a native like Broyard as an entirely ordinary insight or modest fact!

Schütz' essay "The Stranger" is one of his most influential but it has also had its critics. As I learned this past summer, his good friend Aron Gurwitsch (who joined The New School faculty after Schutz' death) found it so offensive he broke off their correspondence for a year. How could Schütz, a student of Husserl, sound so unphilosophical - suggesting that the goal of human life is to be at home, or find a way to be at home, in an incoherent "thinking as usual" that rarely rises to the level of thought, let alone philosophy? In its cool sociological-philosophical stance Schütz' essay does seem to pathologize the stranger's assimilation-complicating objectivity, which seems a problem for the host society as well as for its guest, not an opportunity for true thinking. Indeed Schutz observes that The doubtful loyalty of the stranger is unfortuantely very frequently more than a prejudice on the part of the approached group (507) since the stranger has made the fateful discovery that all "thinking as usual" is unreliable. We're surely not just talking about philosophers here, whose questioning you don't need to be Leo Strauss to think will never sit well with the thoughtless masses. Schütz's essay was published in 1944. Could he, ten years in America and starting to sound like an American pragmatist, have forgotten that one lethal strand of modern European anti-semitism was couched in precisely these terms? I want to learn more about Schütz, and about the New School exiles' views about the Jew as outsider condemned or blessed to objectivity, to be the critic and conscience of the world.

It turns out that Anatole Broyard is more than just another native, too. Through a process of self-invention described in part in Kafka Was The Rage, Broyard became an influential critic and book reviewer for the New York Times - one of the ultimate arbitrators of taste. But his was more than the familiar story of a kid from podunkville making it in New York. As even his children learned only after his death, Broyard was a Creole from New Orleans whose light skin allowed him to "pass" for white. Broyard's success in "passing" is hard to discuss (especially for me, who as a white man doesn't have to work to "pass" as a typical individual). It certainly raises powerful questions about the sacrifices demanded by assimilation. As I noted in a blog post a long time ago, it's hard now not to read works like Kafka Was The Rage as an account of losing a self as well as making one. The tragedy - and the comedy - of my story was that I took American life to heart with a kind of strenuous and ardent sincerity that young men usually bring to love affairs, Broyard wrote in the books' "Prefatory Remarks." While some of my contemporaries made a great show of political commitment, it seems to me that their politicizing of experience abstracted them from the ordinary, from the texture of things. They saw only a Platonic idea of American life. To use one of their favorite words, they were alienated. I was not. In fact, one of my problems was that I was alienated from alienation, an insider among outsiders. (viii) If the Jew was paradigmatic critic and conscience of Europe, what W. E. B. DuBois called African Americans' "double consciousness" affords a similarly prophetic burden of "objectivity" on this side of the Atlantic.

These are becoming little essaylets so I'm going to resist the temptation to do more than remind you of Broyard's odd claim, in response to Fromm's famous ideas in Escape from Freedom (or, in the British edition I was transfixed by in college, Fear of Freedom), that we would turn out to be right in trying to escape from freedom. By the time of his 1964 essay he had factored in how the threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction and consumerism exacerbated modern people's inability to assume responsibility for their situation, and for each other. Can we lead truly human, loving and reasonable lives as strangers to ourselves? Discuss!

Let me turn to the present, and to the world of our students. We started our lecture by asking them to help us assemble a typology of kinds of strangers. It being midterm, most were unconstrained by the terms of Schütz's discussion, but in its way this only made the resulting catalog more interesting. Here it is. (The last item was my addition.)

Once you've finished your mélange of Schütz, Broyard and Fromm, you might want to go through this list with our questions about the circumstances, anxieties and insights of strangers in mind. In my discussion group we had particularly lively discussion about 4, 7, 8, 12 and 13.

The main subject of our discussion, however - and here I will, I promise, end! - was students' reports on interviews they had conducted across the university in recent weeks. In pairs, they had been tasked to approach a fellow student and someone who'd been at The New School at least five years. What they found was intriguing in detail and in general - the divisions know little of each other, change produces anxiety, etc. And while my students mainly interviewed their Parsons instructors, they still learned that identity here is fluid - many faculty and staff members were New School students once or started teaching while students elsewhere, and many still are. But discussing this on the heels of our multifaceted exploration of strangers and The New School made something else clear to me too. Being a school of strangers (in all those senses of the term) is in our DNA. From the start, The New School sought out students who already had lives, and probably already had degrees (degree programs came very late in our story). Most of its faculty had appointments at other schools or careers as artists or professionals in their fields - a situation not that different from today where, despite the growth in full-time faculty like me, the majority of classes are taught by part-time faculty. This wasn't because of economic necessity (at least not in the initial scheme) but essential to the place The New School sought to be. Here people could become familiar with people they'd otherwise encounter only as strangers, could explore their own stranger selves as students or as teachers. This is part of what was subversive in the concept of "adult education," I suppose. It survives in our understanding of ourselves as an urban school with no campus of our own (with its attendant "problem of community"), as a place uniquely suited to help students develop the aptitudes, appetites and agility that will make for success in the complex and ever-changing world because they're already partly immersed in that world while here. Do we help people find multiple homes, or enable them to be strangers everywhere?

Do you hear it too? The discussions described in Broyard, and the charged encounters of worlds of fear and hope, echo on in our halls.


Curious what The Greenwich Lane, the development rising in the space where Saint Vincent's Hospital once stood, will look like? Behold!
The original plan was for more than twice as many units (450 instead of 200) but apparently there are still many enticing options. And while there are plenty of pricier possibilities, the Times reports that you could nab a one-bedroom apartment in the tall block along Seventh Avenue for just over $2 million - sales start this week!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Hudson Valley

Spent a lovely Autumn day with friends up the Hudson. A few views:

The northern tip of Manhattan at Spuyten Duyvil and the New Jersay Palisades aflame with Fall foliage from the Metro North train
The views north and south from Walkway over the Hudson, the pedestrianized 125-year-old  railroad bridge at Poughkeepsie
A grand old building at Vassar College, my grandmother's alma mater, and a grand old tree she must have known, perhaps even sat beneath

Friday, October 25, 2013


Latest word from Google is that we'll soon be able to get personalized maps - maps showing us the things we're most likely to be looking for; indeed, we'll get them whether we want to or not. This os what they've been doing for some time on searches (which is why it's a good thing periodically to use a different search engine, like the deliberately memoryless DuckDuckGo) and, more generally (unless you take the time, every time, to disable it), advertising.

Why does the extension of this customization to maps seem so troubling? It's not just that what shows up on my map will be for sale to the highest bidder, though that's a huge concern. And it's not that we don't know that people have (and should have) their own private geographies - I've often encouraged students to map these out, in fact. It's that without a common map we couldn't notice these difference, enjoy them and learn from them. We might eventually lose all sense of public space, that last vestige of the common good. Critic Evgeny Morozov:

The main reason to celebrate maps that aren't personalized has nothing to do with technophobia or nostalgia about the pre-Google days. It's quite simple, really: When you and I look at the same map, there's a good chance that we might strike a conversation about how to enrich the space that the map represents—perhaps plant more trees or build a sidewalk or install some benches.

Morozov's article puts together several things I've been trying to find words for, such as the implications of the way in which Mapquest, GPS and friends let us get by without any sense of direction, distance, journey: it's just turn right in a bit, get in the left lane, turn left and then right, recalculating, everything's ok, right again... We could drive through the same neighborhood a dozen times without knowing it. Without ever learning the "lay of the land" would we even know what land is?

Thursday, October 24, 2013


Yesterday was the official launch of the print and e-book versions of my book - rather moot since Amazon's been disbursing copies for weeks. But nobody told me there's an audiobook, too. Well, there is. (Actually it was there in something I signed, but I didn't think it would come out with the book.) Listening to it - the sample is more than enough for me;
the whole book takes the reader 5 hours 42 minutes - is profoundly strange. That's not me!! Is that what my writing sounds like? It's a little pedantic. Oh well, I suppose it's still better than the computer-generated "video" of the book description, with one of those voices you can choose for your GPS - and which pronounces Job to rhyme with Bob!

New streetscape

Trees have appeared in front of the new University Center. Very nice!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Our mid-century neighborbood

I'm not sure where she found it, but my co-teacher J found this amazing picture of the Jefferson Market area once upon a time. How much has changed! The Sixth Avenue El - I'd quite forgotten that it was at the end of the block where The New School erected the Urban building on 12th Street! And that huge block - a women's prison, now a beautiful garden (which New School once tried, happily unsucessfully, to acquire). Our local landmark, now a library, was quite overshadowed - except for what looks like a garishly white marble portal... On the other hand, most of the other nearby buildings are unchanged!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Collegial advice

Though myself a blogger, I don't really follow very many other blogs. Make that next to none. But not quite none. I keep up with Reuters Faith World (which I learned about from my elusive journalist uncle D), and with Tenured Radical, and not just because its incisive and fearlessly honest writer happens now to be a New School colleague. Recently, TR took on one of the toughest questions facing us university folks - whether and how to encourage bright undergraduates to pursue further studies. I have for some time now seen it as my responsibility to tell students that the academic job market has dried up, that the likelihood of landing a full-time job in a place they want to be is very slim, that if they go to graduate school they should try to find a way to go without accruing debt, and, finally, to ask themselves if they would feel they had wasted their twenties if they wound up with a dissertation and no job at thirty (i.e., make sure you're doing research work you love).

Some of my friends are appalled that I do this, and it makes me sad, too - my generation faced quite different prospects, and I wish some of my most promising students could do what I've been able to do. But the current system is sending thousands of bright young people to certain disappointment and even bigger debt... What to do? And what else can they do? The oracle speaks! Faculty are wrong to think that undergraduate students know how difficult the situation is, so have a responsibility to inform them. But she draws up a fantastic list of questions we might pose our questions, which manages to be empowering rather than dispiriting:
  • Have you researched the current state of academic employment in this discipline? Do you know where and how to do that? Are you willing to invest less than $100 to get the resources you need to do that?
  • Do you know what the possibilities are for people with a Ph.D. in ________ to find employment outside of the academy? Would you consider being a dean, a program director, or another kind of administrator? Would you see working on renewable contracts, rather than the tenure track, or becoming an administrator, as a failure? Name three things you would like to do if you don’t get a tenure-track job.
  • Do you really love to write? Not like it, or see it as instrumental to a university career, but really love it enough to persist until you become really good at it?
  • Does research compel you?
  • Do you see a broader political or intellectual public for your work than the university –based specialists in your field?
  • Are there other disciplines than the one you wish to apply in that might offer better prospects for academic or alternative employment?
  • Have you considered taking two-three years off to work in this field, or a related one, in order to find out if you really need to go to graduate school at all?
  • Have you taken any graduate classes to understand what commitment you must make to succeed in graduate school? Do you know how long you might be there?
  • Do you have loans already? Have you visited the financial aid office to have your repayment rate calculated on those loans? Do you have access to family wealth?
  • Do you have the self confidence, and the patience, to fail? To try again? To reimagine your career and/or intellectual goals? To do this more than once?
The rest of the article, and the discussion it inspires, are worth reading too. I know it's what I'll turn to the next time a student asks about graduate school.

Monday, October 21, 2013


Science fiction writer extraordinaire Kim Stanley Robinson reading from his newest book and sharing some of his consistently brilliant insights:
He defines science fiction, a genre he's "patriotic" about, as recounting "histories we can never know" - futures which might unfold (like the thoroughly realized world of 2312, when humans have rendered many other planets and moons of our solar system habitable by "terraforming," and have also speciated into several sizes and a panoply of genders), counterfactual pasts (like world history had the Black Death wiped out the population of Europe in The Years of Rice and Salt) or stories of the unknowable past (the new novel Shaman takes place 30,000 years ago). I'm persuaded that it's a serious form of moral critique and imagination.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Brooklyn slice

I went to my first literary party this evening - invited by an alumna who works for the small independent literary publisher whose reception it was. (No, it wasn't at the pizzeria below, but in an old brownstone in Clinton Hill. Not Ray's was on my walk over.) I don't do parties well,
but this one was quite fun. Met a bunch of people - all just by first name, though the surnames have been easy to reconstruct - who write, edit, publish or review interesting books. All were wittier and more agile small talkers than me. Several were aware of my book, which was a little terrifying. None has read it yet, though some said they would. (!)

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Paying it forward

In tomorrow's Sunday Review, an article about an epidemic of little acts of charity: people in drive-through restaurants paying for the people in the car behind them.

Whereas paying it forward in drive-throughs occurred maybe once or twice a year a decade ago, now fast-food operators said it might happen several times a day. 

And sometimes whole chains of forward-paying unfold, the recipients of one person's generosity paying in turn for the car behind them. These chains can get quite long.

Perhaps the largest outbreak of drive-through generosity occurred last December at a Tim Hortons in Winnipeg, Manitoba, when 228 consecutive cars paid it forward. A string of 67 cars paid it forward in April at a Chick-fil-A in Houston. And then a Heav’nly Donuts location in Amesbury, Mass., had a good-will train of 55 cars last July.
Serial pay-it-forward incidents involving between 4 and 24 cars have been reported at Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Del Taco, Taco Bell, KFC and Dunkin’ Donuts locations in Maryland, Florida, California, Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama, North Dakota, Michigan, North Carolina and Washington.
More typically, though, it’s one customer acting alone and perhaps routinely. “We have a lady who always pays it forward in the drive-through, every day,” said Aaron Quinton, co-owner of Old School Bagel Cafe, in Tulsa, Okla. “I point at the person behind and she just nods.” 

What a wonderful phenomenon! What to make of it? The writer and some of the folks she talks to think it might be a reaction to dysfunction in Washington, and I'm tempted to connect it to our evident inability as a society to take care of people we think should be taken care of (health care? a living wage? gun safety?), but that hardly explains the Tim Horton in Winnipeg. An interesting angle is the anonymity of it.

“If you paid for someone inside a restaurant, they would see you,” said Jessica Kelishes, a marketing representative for an auto parts distributor, who pays it forward at Del Taco, McDonald’s and Starbucks drive-throughs in Banning, Calif. “I just do it out of kindness rather than for recognition.” She said her kindness stemmed from feeling blessed and wanting to share her good fortune. But others have told drive-through cashiers they wanted to pay it forward in gratitude to drivers who waved their car ahead of them in line or after noticing in the rearview mirror a woman weeping into her steering wheel, and wanting to make her smile. Cancer survivors have done it in appreciation of life, and new parents have done it to celebrate their baby.
But more often there is an expressed desire to do something good at a time when so much else in the world seems so dishearteningly bad. It’s a stark contrast, and perhaps a backlash, to the seemingly unremitting reports of unkindness in the news — politicians shutting down the government, N.S.A. spying, teenage suicides resulting from cyber-bullying, vicious slayings at a mall in Kenya, gas attacks in Syria.
“It’s about giving, and letting people see not everybody is bad, and there are nice people out there and maybe we can turn it around,” said Connie Herring, an optical technician in St. Pauls, N.C., who pays it forward at drive-throughs at least once a week. 

It's a classic "random act of kindness" - not quite random (there seem to be regular seeders) but disconnected enough from the systems and relationships it softens or corrects to be powerful, and small enough to be accepted as a gift and perhaps passed on: a presentiment of a kinder world. I imagine the gesture of commensality and shared humanity makes the food taste better, too.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Job, a life

I did not, when I accepted the task of doing the Job volume for the "Lives of Great Religious Texts" series, think very much about audience. To the extent I thought about it at all (as an ordinary academic I don't imagine anyone much will actually read what I write), I imagined some undergraduate classes, and some of the kind of folks The New School sought in "educating the educated," that elusive but exquisite beast the "educated lay reader." During the writing, I realized it might also be read in seminaries, and perhaps in religious reading groups. But I should have known better - especially given the argument of my book! I should have remembered that Job is the truest friend and witness of many who suffer, that the Book of Job offers a voice, a framework, a vindication for people enduring terrible afflictions but unable to find a sympathetic hearing, who share the biblical hero's fervent wish (and the frame of my book) 

Oh, that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
(Job 19:23)

Today I got what probably won't be the last message from a stranger entitled Job: my biography. The writer (who heard me "On Point") has been housebound for two decades with an undiagnosable disease but consoled by mystical experiences in the way Job was consoled by the voice from the whirlwind. He's written several book manuscripts about his experiences but publishers aren't interested: can I help? Can I?

Thursday, October 17, 2013


In our New School history class yesterday, we took the students to the Orozco room. One student took the panorama below, which, for all the inevitable distortion, gives a remarkably good sense of it as a space. Behind J and me, you see "Struggle in the Orient," a tableau you may recognize; just beyond us are the portraits of Gandhi and Naidu. Between the windows is the "Table of Universal Brotherhood," with its multiracial vision of global harmony, occasion for many a bigoted response in its time. (Today we see mainly missing women.) To their right is "Struggle in the West" with Mexico, Lenin and goose-stepping Soviets, including Joseph Stalin. This is the wall which was once covered over with a yellow curtain - see the image from "New School Keeps Red Mural Hidden" below.

This visit was, I dare say, the highlight of a week which somehow fell flat. The analog last time round was a great success - "I think we did the three-ring circus of The New School proud today," I crowed - so this was a bit of a surprise. The week was devoted to two important programs which, for a brief time in the 1940s, made The New School an even more than usually cool place - Erwin Piscator's Dramatic Workshop and the Ecole Libre - and the theme of art as politics. Plenty interesting, you might think... but not to our mostly Parsons students. That what we hope is a complicated but empowering sense of place means little to them was clear from my students' response to the Orozco room. It's dated; worse, in its way, it's off-limits to students. And when I showed them the recent cool student efforts to bring it up to date, indifference: what would be the point of trying to make it relevant today? It's a slumpy part of the semester in a class already dealing with the low morale of required courses, but these responses cut to the quick. Next time, we hope for more interested students; even then, we may have to leave these parts of the story out.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Smooth sailing

until the next manufactured crisis. Thank you, President Obama, for not negotiating with hostage-takers, and for maintaining the rule of law.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


We had our Religious Studies Program Fall roundtable today, a great showcase of the kinds of work being done in and around our community. Our theme was "Science & Religion," an old chestnut, but I think we succeeded in surprising people with interestingly new approaches.
First, two colleagues (one a biochemist) shared the work they've been doing over the past several year to put together teaching modules on debates about stem cell research. They focused on the very particular case of a Catholic family whose son had a genetic disease which would have ended his life had they not had a second child whose bone marrow stem cells allowed gene therapy. The Catholic Church disapproves of this, but these were Catholics, too, acting on their consciences - a more nuanced way into religious questions about the ethics of stem cell research than you usually hear, and a reminder that science-religion questions are being worked through on the ground all the time.

Next, a Buddhologist took us through - and beneath the surface of - the Dalai Lama's well-known statements about the primacy of science. Yes, he has said that any Buddhist tenet disproved by science should be abandoned, but he also thinks basic Buddhist things like the law of karma are "hidden," beyond empirical confirmation or disconfirmation. This is what scholars of religion call a "protective strategy," but our discussion went a more interesting direction. Apparently the Dalai Lama's true concern is to get allegedly empathy-expanding meditation practices into schools, and if calling them "science" or "secular ethics" is what is needed to achieve this end, so be it.

Finally, one of our seniors - yes, a student! - presented her ongoing research on the Big History project. As she explained it, this movement seeks to place human experience in the 13.82 billion year history of the universe, offering a unifying and grounding "origin story" like those which religions have traditionally offered. Students first lose themselves in the vastness of time and then find a new purpose in appreciating the precious contingencies which have made human life and reflection possible. Big History doesn't do much with religion, but in presenting itself as a successor to religious traditions it raises all sorts of questions - not least whether it has parted ways also with science, which abjures big stories in favor of an open-ended experimental method.

We had some unfortunately all-too-common technical difficulties with set-up, so I didn't get a chance to offer my introductory remarks, but in retrospect I'm not sure they were needed. I was going to suggest three phases of discussion about science and religion:

(1) science vs. religion, the Enlightenment view of zero-sum competition which is still alive in New Atheism, and in the equal and opposite reaction of a certain evangelical suspicion of science;

(2) science and/or/as religion, more subtle views which appreciate that many early "natural philosophers" (as well as some contemporary scientists) understood themselves to be doing both science and religion, and imagine various ways in which science and religion are friends, allies or even (as in Bruno Latour) doing many of the same things;

(3) ... and science and religion, the postsecular moment in which larger questions about the nature of secular institutions, values and categories make the science/religion question seem just an aspect of broader debates, large or small

Not needed! The presentations themselves made this amply clear.

Straighten up and fly right

At the post office today, I saw something I thought must be a prank. But no - to celebrate stamp collecting the US Postal Service has recreated the most famous blooper in its history, the 1918 "inverted Jenny." Just in time for the crash and burn of the US government...!

Monday, October 14, 2013


End of an era - read all about it!
Today's was the very last issue of the International Herald-Tribune! From tomorrow, it will be called what it has de facto been for some time, the International New York Times. Will being an American in Paris - or anywhere in Europe, or abroad more generally, ever be the same?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Explosion of color

One of the pleasures of my Sunday rounds is this truck, which is usually parked on Ninth Ave along my way from the Church of the Holy Apostles at 28th to Joe Coffee on 23rd Street. No idea whose it is - who cares?


A colleague directed me to an excellent analysis of what's so wrong with the idea of MOOCs by Gianpiero Petriglieri of INSEAD. Some highlights:

... the techno-democratization of education looks like a cover story for its aristocratization. MOOCs aren’t digital keys to great classrooms’ doors. At best, they are infomercials for those classrooms. At worst, they are digital postcards from gated communities.

This is why I am a MOOC dissenter. More than a revolution, so far this movement reminds me of a different kind of disruption: colonialism.

... Colonialism is a particular kind of socialization. It involves educating communities into the “superior” culture of a powerful but distant center by replacing local authorities or co-opting them as translators. A liberating education, on the other hand, makes students not just recipients of knowledge and culture but also owners, critics, and makers of it. 

While they claim to get down to business and focus on training only, MOOCs do their fair share to affirm and promulgate broader cultural trends, like the rise of trust in celebrities’ authority, the cult of technology as a surrogate for leadership, and the exchange of digital convenience for personal privacy.  

The idea that we should have access to anything wherever and however we want it for free, in exchange for the provider’s opportunity to use and sell our online footprint to advertisers or employers is the essence of digital consumerism. This is the culture that MOOCs are borne of and reinforce in turn. 

Even the fabled personalization that digital learning affords is really a form of mass customization. There is no personal relationship. It is a market of knowledge where no one is known and care is limited to the provision of choices. 

Whether its crusaders are venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, academics, or students, the colonizer is a transactional view of education, centered on knowledge as a commodity, which displaces a relational view of education, centered on developing through relationships. This in turn becomes, like all precious resources of colonial territories, no longer a common good but a leisurely privilege.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The season unfolds!

Friday, October 11, 2013


You remember how the Benton Room became a bee in my bonnet early in my time as amateur local historian of The New School? I was obsessed by its colors and by the way it had defined the place for generations, but was now almost entirely forgotten. This year's obsession is looking also to be about color, spaces and memory. Triggered by the above image of the color scheme of the dance studio, I've remembered reading that the whole building was in bold colors from floor to ceiling, indeed even including ceilings and floors. Apparently there are more watercolors in the Urban papers... But in the meantime, look what I found in an article a colleague sent me - a detailed account of the New School for Social Research building at 66 West 12th Street by a Shepard Vogelgesang in The Architectural Record (Feb 1931), 139-50. To my delight it even includes a photo of the room in which J and I taught the first iteration of our New School history course - now in drab white and wood. And the description of the ninety different colors used in the building also confirms another thing I was sure I'd heard: that the view of the building at night was of a kaleidoscope of colors spilling out on to the street.

Making waves

A day after my date with radio destiny I'm settling back into ordinary life, but it's been a weird day. I think it's the strange sensory dislocation involved. In that solitary studio I was responding to voices I heard only over headphones - voices in my head! - along with my own voice, but I realized later that people far away, some known to me and others not, had been hearing me, some live and others later. It was intoxicating, my first real experience of the remote action made possible by, well, the age of mechanical reproducibility. To be honest, I wasn't quite willing just to be here, in this body with its physical limits - as if I'd found I was secretly capable of telekenesis or being in two places at the same time. Of course I was just one segment of a weekly chat show, but I think can see how people get carried away by the scale difference of fame.

In the meantime, the segment has produced 178 responses on the program website. The first to comment were haters, saying sadly predictable things which, also sadly, always produce enough responses to keep them at it - even as there's no evidence they actually listened to the program. For instance:

Please, next time you talk about the bible, please label it the Book of Hooey. Non-believers don't need readings from the bible to tell them about the stark reality of living today. And you and most interviewers on NPR rarely interview the famous atheists about these very things. And we don't need any "Sky God" to guide us or save our lives.

It always amazes me that anyone would worship the despicable deity of the Book of Job. A god that makes a bet, and part of the bet involves the death of innocent people and the suffering of an innocent man. For a bet! But, and here's the kicker, all is well folks, don't you feel sorry for poor Job having lost all his children because, are you ready for it... he has MORE children. And since children as we all know are interchangeable, they all lived happily ever after. One needs to wonder about the mental competence of anyone who thinks that is a stellar example of divine goodness and love. I could introduce you to plenty of human beings who are much better people than this god. And they don't demand to be worshipped either.

Others are a bit better informed, and a few even reference the program! (The subtler points I made were missed, at least by some.) But why do they let themselves get sucked into exchanges with the sad haters? Why bother? I suppose they're all experiencing action at a distance, too.

I should include some of the helpful, indeed illuminating comments too.

I sometimes teach Job in the Judaism section of my humanities class, and it provides a very necessary moral statement to the Tanakh, encouraging a deontological ethic when so much of the Torah demonstrates a teleological ethic. If stories like Adam and Eve demonstrate that it's important to obey God for the potential reward or punishment, Job shows that reward and punishment are irrelevant, that being good is important for its own sake. The frame story of the bet is only morally problematic if taken literally & obscures the much more important moral lesson at the center, that being good must have no relationship with reward. In humanities, we parallel it with the Bhagavad Gita where the importance for today's world is not that killing one's cousins is okay but that karma is only a function of dharma. One must first do his/her moral duty without self interest and not consider the "fruits of action."

All this research and discussion, and no mention that Job is also a prophet in Islam, and his story is mentioned in the Quran? It's not only 'two faiths' that have this story. (I don't think there's any wager in the Islamic version.)

It's fascinating that so many ignore all the people who've died and come back. The research shows how consistent the experiences are, and what they discover is that WE CHOSE THIS LIFE with all its potential for negative experiences, so we might grow. WE achieve goals thru suffering, and thinking of God as an external being that tortures is incorrect. No more whining - you chose it. Listen to their accounts on YouTube (Gordon Allen , Joe Geraci). They have learned some of the secrets, and it's mind-blowing, and it feels right.

Job is from the East? There is clearly a Buddhist connection here. Job's patience can be seen as acceptance and acceptance leads to Enlightenment, or what God perceived to be better than S/He.

I'm a lifelong believing Catholic. My faith has seen me through some tough times and as a physician who understands the definition of stress as a situation where we're not in control, I believe that without my faith and the sacraments (the same as grace) I would be dead. I read the book of Job years ago when I was every bit as blessed as Job. That was due to my family and the tremendous faith of my Irish mom and old world Prussian father. Evil comes into the world as a result of our free will. We make the choices and in a just world suffer the consequences either in this world or in the next. None of that rules out the possibility of reincarnation as an underlying truth. I can see how we might be in purgatory (a matter of semantics) now. The world goes it's way with the wheat growing with the chaff until that final trumpet sounds and we are judged by our deeds in the cold light where "nothing" is hidden. Every action, good or bad, begins at the level of intention. That is an ultimate abstract (either intellectual or spiritual) thing which makes mankind unique among creatures. We are the only creatures who regularly die for some abstract idea. It's very important for the world and mankind as a whole that "good" intentions are at the root and beginning of every action. Faith hope and charity and "the greatest of these is charity". Ultimately the best of "humanism", science and religion must come together.

The tribulations Job goes through are part of his journey and relationship with God. His steadfast faith enables him to experience God within the end of the text. Like Thich Nhat Han states "No Mud, No Lotus".

Thursday, October 10, 2013

My fifteen minutes

I was live on a nationally syndicated radio show today! The show is out of Boston, so I had to go to a radio studio in the Flatiron, and was pretty much alone with my mike and my notes. (A kind technician brought me a cup of lemon ginger tea, and indulged my request for a photo!)
The experience was a little strange. The host was busy (mine was the second half of his program) so all my communication had been with an assistant; a second assistant greeted me when we were about to go live. I had assumed there would be a brief hello from the host before the program, but no - we dove right in, live, without so much as a how-do-you-do. I probably was like the sound equivalent of a deer in the headlights, at least for the first segment... It didn't flow. This isn't going well, I thought.

But once I settled into it, after a brilliantly apposite sound clip from the Police's "Wrapped around your finger," it was fun! I'd started out a little cross because it seemed we weren't going to talk about my book, but about the Book of Job itself, and "the modern age." Here's the opener:

[Host:] The Book of Job is a brutal corner of the Bible.  A good man, Job, thrown arbitrarily, suddenly, into a life of absolute agony.  Stripped of his wealth.  His children killed.  Plagued and hounded and showered with misery.  His only consolation sounds like none: “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.” Deal with it.  The Book of Job is so harsh.  It’s about unrelieved injustice and the suffering of innocent humans.  About grief and rage and the human condition.  And maybe about wisdom that goes right beyond the Bible.  Up next On Point:  The Book of Job, and life right now.

I thought I'd insulated myself from all such questions by writing about other people's (indeed people in the past's) takes on the book - how naive! I've had my head in books about books too long: these aren't just academic or historical question for most folks (my line when it's just professors talking...!). So I had to speak, at least some of the time, in my own voice! It was a learning experience. I'm that E. M. Forster character who doesn't know what she thinks till she hears what she says.

The author of The Book of Job: A Biography apparently buys Bruce Zuckerman's theory of Job as a parody the authorities coopted since they couldn't suppress it, as well as David Cline's speculation that the story is the nightmare of a rich person, and thinks that the wager is the most awful part of the Book of Job, that God ignores human concerns in his speeches, that Job seems to be the moral winner over God... but also that the Book of Job empowers those whose worlds have collapsed around them, has been a comfort to the disenfranchised, describes what true patience looks like in a world like ours, presents a grand God, and affirms the reality - as no human source perhaps can - of truly innocent suffering. Oh, and a faltering theist outted himself by using (however inconsistently) the word "Godself" to avoid the masculine pronoun!
By the second half, when a somewhat formulaic second guest was brought in, I think I was getting the hang of it. But it's definitely a good thing I didn't do any research on the program, which I know I've heard referred to, before the broadcast. It's syndicated to over two hundred NPR stations across the land! Yoicks. Much better to think it was just me and the cup of tea on the phone with some folks in Massachusetts...

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Dustbin of history?

In "Theorizing Religion" today, it was time again for Marx' greatest religion hits: the start of the Contribution to a Critique of Hegel's "Philosophy of Right" (where religion's described as the opium of the people), the "Theses on Feuerbach," and the "Fetishism of Commodities" discussion in Kapital. It's one of my favorite sessions - as in years past, this was most students' first chance to actually read anything of Marx's - and one of those where I get almost preachy. (Barth, Dewey and Zen are others.) But China on the horizon of my thinking made the experience today quite different. In past classes, I realized, Marx has been safely passé. One could savor the early Marx, and even cherry-pick from the later work, without having to engage the disastrous history of state Marxisms. Who in our time would actually try to create a classless society where "species being" might flourish?

Monday, October 07, 2013

Commitment issues

I'm going through a weird lucky spell. I won something in the summer competitions of both Film Forum and the IFC Center! The former got me pairs of tickets to three French movies in repertory, though I had a chance only to see one of them, Nicolas Philibert's smart and endearing docco about Radio France, "La Maison de la Radio." The hipper ICF's hipper prize was a $250 stash of temporary tattoos. But... tattoos? moi?
My friend J was surprised to hear me say I'd never been tempted to get a tattoo, not even for a second. "Commitment issues," I explained, truly. Temporary changes everything! (Though we shall see how temporary it actually is.) So which was to be my first? I picked this one of a robot floating outside a spaceship. It speaks to me, somehow. And peeks teasingly out of a shirtsleeve, as I have noticed tattoos often slyly do.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

By grace alone

In church today, the scheduled epistoler (reader of the Pauline Epistle) didn't show, so I was asked to step in. With time for only one dry run, I got to intone
2 Timothy 1:14, a mixture of somewhat hectoring epistolary pleasantries and heavy ammunition for theologies of predestination:

8Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, 9who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

I read it with more than a little fear and trembling - the slightly awestruck pleasure I described back in my lay stewardship homily four years ago. Afterwards a parishioner of long standing, whom I sometimes see with his wife at original instrument performances of baroque music, came up to me. It's always a pleasure when I read, he said, but today was particularly fine. I felt so, too. Did anyone else notice?

The image above also happened at church today. One of my fellow ushers happened to be leafing through the Books of Common Prayer before the service and found this one - defaced, or perhaps annotated. We had an amusing time trying to decipher the somewhat polyglot words and guessing whose work it was, even thrusting the open page in the face of friends coming in, "admit it - this was you!" with more than a few confessing to the deed... until we noticed the attempted swastika.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

On Target

Why we love Target First Saturdays at the Brooklyn Museum:
Great music - here the jazzy Argentinian singer Sofia Rei with her band. All of Brooklyn is there - including dancing kids (though my friend V noticed there were no little boys). And iPhones charging, unsupervised.

Colors of the season

On Saturdays I generally get to spend the whole day in Brooklyn...!

Friday, October 04, 2013

Outdoor concert

Not sure why this Amish chorus was singing on the grass of Washington Square Park today. It's not easy to get through to New Yorkers...

Wednesday, October 02, 2013


The New York Times (what a friend of mine only half-jokingly calls "that leftist rag") includes one conservative political cartoonist's work on its website (Glenn McCoy), and it always seems to come from a parallel reality. Never more than today's, though. (That's the Times' own logo sixth from the right.) Who- Wha- Huh??? Obama as Lenin?!

I share the view that the functioning of democracy requires accepting the outcomes of democratic processes, and so of course reject made-up roadblocks like the current federal government shutdown over an operating budget. If you don't like what an elected official does, vote her/him out of office at the next election. (Not, as recently for supporters of gun control in Colorado, and a few years before that with the duly elected governor of California, jump the gun and remove them by an early referendum only you and your friends are likely to show up for.) But in the mean time, respect the process. Without it we're lost.

But at the same time I wonder if I'm getting enough information to understand what's going on, what has led to behavior among House Republicans my preferred pundits are unable to explain in any but irrational terms - madness, suicide, etc. A friend of mine said the other day that she deplored the Tea Party's complete lack of principle; I can't agree. They lack the principle of deliberative democratic fair play, I thought, but are driven to that by deeply held libertarian culture-crisis principles they share with their supporters. They may well subscribe to the emaciated democratic principle (not unknown on the left) according to which a representative's only responsibility is to the people who elected her/him - that principle's emaciated, but it's still a principle, and still democratic in the diluted way of late capitalist political imagination. Some of them genuinely think the Obama camp is undermining the principles of democracy - I need to understand why.

Two disheartening thoughts arise, though - no, three. The third is that democracy is lost in an American so divided in its information sources as well as its understandings of democracy. (I'm not prepared to accept utterly irreconcilable value systems; you know my reactions to red-blue myth-mongering.) That third thought resonates with the first, a memory of reading Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies in college. Popper calls it "the paradox of democracy" that this form of government can, entirely legitimately, abolish itself - there are no built-in mechanisms to preserve it when people no longer believe in their fellow citizens and think democracy needs supplementation or hiatus. And the second? A dejected sense that the hostage-takers on the Hill have an advantage. As with the Sequester, the longer things chug on without government functioning, the stronger their case will seem to their supporters that government isn't in the business of functioning - and that, for better or worse, we can make do without it.

Would a wise King Solomon be able to show that one side is only pretending to be committed to democracy? I suspect that folks on both sides might agree - each justified in believing (given their sources of information) that the other would rather kill the baby than share it.

New School colors

In our New School history course today we talked about the modern arts - dance, music, architecture - as forms of "social research": efforts less to be beautiful or useful than to better frame and seek ways of addressing the questions of the modern age. I got to talk about my old flame, the Thomas Hart Benton murals, but also about the building as part of which they were painted - Joseph Urban's modernist building at 66 West 12th Street. Nowadays it's rather dark and unremarkable, but in its time it was electric - literally and figuratively. Looking at Urban's plans and early representations we find not a dark building in serious black and white (but for the crazily out of place orange and grey of the auditorium) - that would be international style - but a facade nearly white and an interior (which would spill out through the unbroken horizontal bars of windows, especially at night) full of boldest colors. An article about the new building by Rita Susswein (you can find it in the third of the New School scrapbooks, page 72)makes clear that the walls and even the ceilings of classrooms were painted in reds, oranges, yellows and greens. In Urban's words, the colors made the spaces dynamic, "contrasting filled spaces and void space" exploding the "monotony" of "box-like" rooms with imagination and emotion. I can't find any representations of these rooms, or of the sight of the New School at night, but at least a few students are joining my quixotic quest to find out what colors were used - and who decided to paint them over in the current white. Only one image have I been able to find, but it confirms the marvel which was Urban's multi-color palace of modernity - the dance studio built beneath the auditorium. Spectacular, no? And guess what - the box in the Joseph Urban collection in Columbia's rare books room from whence this came appears to contain eighteen more color sketches and watercolors. Since some of the interested students are in Parsons, we might end up with a beautiful way of sharing or even recreating these spaces! (I'm dancing already.)